Why Thiem Needs To Stand Up To Rafa
After a dominant performance at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters by World No. 1 Rafael Nadal and a surprising upset at the Mutua Madrid Open by Dominic Thiem, the pair will battle to break their 2018 tie in Sunday's Roland Garros final with the Coupe des Mousquetaires on the line.
Nadal controlled rallies in Monte-Carlo and Thiem made an adjustment on return just weeks later that helped allow him to exert his powerful baseline game on the Spaniard in Madrid. ATPWorldTour.com examines the two matches to gauge what the keys will be in their championship match on Sunday, which will be their 10th FedEx ATP Head2Head series meeting (Nadal leads 6-3, all on clay).
Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters (Monte-Carlo, Monaco): Nadal def. Thiem 6-0, 6-2
This might have been the most highly anticipated match early on in the clay-court season. And in a 68-minute flash, it was over. Nadal stepped on the court against a player who at the time had won seven clay-court ATP World Tour titles and reached back-to-back semi-finals at Roland Garros, and he walked off having made a statement to the field.
Thiem struggled to land his first serve, making just 41 per cent of them in the match, allowing the Spaniard to step in and immediately dictate play on the baseline from the first strike in the rally. And once Nadal gets into an aggressive rhythm, finding a way out of that is like trying to swim against a riptide.
It certainly helped that the top seed landed 71 per cent of his first serves, winning 84 per cent (21/25) of those points. Nadal’s second serve may well be his most attackable shot, but he did not give the Austrian a chance to find an offensive groove because of his high first-serve rate.
And because of that, Thiem was forced to return from deeper in the court, looping balls back toward Nadal. And while Thiem hits one of the heaviest balls on the ATP World Tour off both wings, court-positioning is key against Nadal. If the Spaniard is on the baseline, he almost always pushes his opponents far behind their baseline, making it difficult to play on their own terms.
“That is not a normal result against a player [like Thiem]. He played the past two semi-finals of Roland Garros, played the final in Barcelona, final in Madrid, semis in Rome. He's one of the best players of the world, especially on clay,” Nadal said. “I think I played great. I played so well this afternoon, playing very aggressive in general terms, backhand, forehand, serve. I'm defending well, returning well. I can't say much more.”
Mutua Madrid Open (Madrid, Spain): Thiem def. Nadal 7-5, 6-3
The task seemed daunting. Entering the Mutua Madrid Open quarter-finals, Nadal had won 21 straight matches and 50 consecutive sets on clay. Just weeks earlier, he took barely an hour to oust Thiem. “I had to play an extraordinary match,” Thiem said. “That's what I did.”
Thiem beat Nadal for the second consecutive year on clay, which is notable considering nobody else on the ATP World Tour has won a match on the surface against the Spaniard during that span. It takes one look at the statistics to see that this was a totally different match. Whereas in Monte-Carlo, Nadal dominated on serve and Thiem failed to put enough first serves in play to challenge the top seed, the opposite was true at the Spanish ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event.
Thiem landed 65 per cent of his first serves compared to Nadal’s 58 per cent. That allowed the Austrian to do a better job getting on top of points on his own serve, while he was able to step in to return Nadal’s delivery.
“The best was my groundstrokes,” Thiem said. “They were very aggressive. I think I really hurt him with them. At the same time they were pretty safe. I didn't make too many stupid errors. That was important.”
Thiem’s return position was significantly closer to the baseline in this match. While the Austrian stepped close to the baseline sporadically in Monte-Carlo, he hugged it in Madrid. Taking the ball earlier didn’t necessarily mean that he was hitting clean winners. But what Thiem did was take away time from Nadal, forcing him to back up to react to the right-hander's deep returns. That benefitted the eventual finalist, as Thiem was then positioned right on the baseline and able to aggressively go after shots for the rest of the rally. He was no longer camped way behind the baseline spinning heavy shots back in an attempt to stave off Nadal’s inevitable forehand onslaught. Thiem was the player in a comfort zone.
“I haven't read the ball good enough to be able to handle the situation, to put him in places where he didn't feel comfortable to play,” Nadal said. “If you don't strike the first balls good enough, it's very difficult to step into the game because his balls come really heavy.”
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Now, the pair will compete to break their 2018 tie. Will Nadal find a way to stay close to the baseline and play at his dictating best, or will Thiem once again step into the court and push the Spaniard back? If the Austrian is able to do that, it could make for a thrilling Roland Garros final. But keep in mind, they will be playing a best-of-five-set match, allowing Nadal more time to find a solution. Nadal's record in that format on clay? 110-2.That is arguably as tough of a task as any player could face in tennis.